Alan died minutes after seeing smoke plume

Grace van der Kooi, whose first husband Alan Morris was one of the stack’s project managers. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

Grace van der Kooi, whose first husband Alan Morris was one of the stack’s project managers. Picture: KIRK GILMOUR

Some time before midnight on June 21, 1965, Alan Morris asked a nurse to turn his hospital bed to face the window.

It was a clear night and through the darkness Alan could make out the copper smelter stack on the skyline.

A heart attack had left the Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company executive in Wollongong Hospital for 10 days and he was desperate to watch the first plumes of smoke rise from the 198-metre chimney – the tallest in the southern hemisphere.

For the workaholic, such a feat for the company he had worked for since the age of 14 was incredible and to have been part of its construction, as one of the overseers, was the highlight of his career.

'You can imagine, for such a stack to be built with none of the modern technology we have today. It was an exciting event.'

Although gravely ill, Alan kept watching and waiting for the smoke – and then a few minutes before midnight the first plumes came – confirmation that the challenging project had been a success.

For a man who worked such long shifts, often not getting home until 9pm each night, one can wonder of the satisfaction, pride and relief he must have felt.

Nine minutes after the smoke came, Alan died on June 22. He was 41. He left behind his wife Grace and their three children aged 7, 11 and 12.

The Illawarra Mercury didn’t report on the stack firing up the next day – quite possibly it was a test run before the company was to go public.

Alan Morris, on the right, died in hospital nine minutes after watching the first plumes of smoke rise from the stack.

Alan Morris, on the right, died in hospital nine minutes after watching the first plumes of smoke rise from the stack.

At the time, industry was booming in the Illawarra. The day before, the Mercury reported on a £40 million expansion of the steelworks including a new blast furnace and strip mill. That month there were also reports on compulsory unionism.

Alan was ER&S ore-purchase and shipping manager, having worked his way up the ranks from his early days in the mill.

His widow, Grace van der Kooi, who remarried 14 years later, said her first husband had kept a watch on how the stack was built, whether they were on schedule and using the correct materials.

‘‘It was a big deal for him, for the entire community really,’’ said Mrs van der Kooi. 

‘‘You can imagine, for such a stack to be built with none of the modern technology we have today. It was an exciting event.’’

She said when her husband died, the entire family had been at home asleep in bed.

‘‘It was unbelievable,’’ she said.

 ‘‘His death was such a shock for all of us.’’

The construction of the stack had been a family interest for years. Almost every Sunday, with the three kids piled into the back seat of the Holden, they would drive out to Port Kembla to determine its progress.

‘‘We weren’t allowed inside the plant, but we would park the car on a nearby hill and the children would count the bricks each week,’’ Mrs van der Kooi said.

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